What the Presidency Can Tell Us About Gedolei Yisroel

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A few months ago, veteran political columnist James Fallows presented two opposing views of the Obama presidency in a cover story for The Atlantic. It generated much discussion, in part because of its balance, in part because of the depth that only someone who has been as close to the presidency as Fallows can bring. Fallows admits to leaning to a favorable view of the President, but it does not get in the way of pinpointing his flaws and errors. If you are open to two points of view on the subject, “Obama, Explained” remains a good read.

Fallows considers, inter alia, the gargantuan task that confronts any US president:

The sobering realities of the modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to office, and therefore all presidents fail in certain crucial aspects of the job. All betray their supporters and provoke bitter criticism from their own side at some point in their term. And all are mis-assessed while in office, for reasons that typically depend more on luck and historical accident than on factors within their control. …Presidents fail because not to fail would require, in the age of modern communications and global responsibilities, a range of native talents and learned skills no real person has ever possessed. These include “smarts” in the normal sense…. A president needs rhetorical clarity and eloquence, so that he can explain to publics at home and around the world the intent behind his actions and—at least as important—so that everyone inside the administration understands his priorities clearly enough that he does not have to wade into every little policy fight to enforce his preferences….A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence….He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical… capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids….Ideally he would be self-aware enough that, in the center of a system that treats him as emperor-god, he could still recognize his own defects and try to offset them.

It struck me that much, if not all, of this analysis holds true of our expectations of gedolei Yisrael. We ask of them, expect of them, more than most mortals can possibly deliver.

We would be naïve if we tried ignoring or denying the murmurings in the tents of many yerei’im u-shleimim in the Orthodox world. Cross-Currents is one of the minority of blogs whose authors remain committed to the ideals of emunas chachamim and taking counsel with gedolei Yisrael. Yet even among our readership, it is clear that many people – if only anonymously – sometimes express disappointment with this or that gadol, or with the general manner of leadership of the Torah community.

There may be room for criticism, but we should ask ourselves many questions before we criticize too publicly or too vocally. One of those questions should be whether we ask the impossible of our gedolim.

In truth, the comparison to the President fails, for reasons that took a trip to Washington for me to appreciate. A few weeks ago, I was in DC as part of my day-job, and dealt with personnel at the White House. The subject is not suitable for discussion on a blog, and largely irrelevant. (It is not quite of “eeef I tell you, I have to keeel you” caliber, but still sensitive. It will wait for an appropriate time in the future.) Having to differentiate between doors upon which to knock, the complexity of government became much more immediate and real. The point is that there were offices, often multiple offices, for almost every kind of problem and program imaginable. Within the White House itself, there were people waiting on hand to assist the President with every kind need and every contingency, leaving him with as much freedom to make the decisions required of him.

How different this support system is from the lives of our gedolim! Not only do we expect of them all that Fallows describes, but we demand that they provide the right answers without any of the support system available to the President, even on a much smaller scale. To the contrary, almost all of them have immediate responsibilities to their talmidim, boards of directors, alumni, members of their immediate communities, etc. These duties alone could take up every waking minute – but we still believe that they should be able to serve up insight and leadership that comes from entire offices at governmental agencies and corporate headquarters.

I am not arguing that all is perfect, or that it is heretical to look for ways to improve the system. But we ought to be able to cut our gedolim a bit more slack than some of us do.

We certainly ought not make things worse by making assumptions that are not true. A case in point is a clip of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shlit”a, holding his own against two interlocutors. At age 100, he is so on target, incisive and strong that many viewers have found themselves cheering from the sidelines. It is a rare opportunity to watch an overworked and overburdened gadol at work – and turning in a command performance.

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33 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    “some say to the detriment of his standing as a Gadol with many chareidim in EY. We need him ad mea esrim shana.”I would be appreciative if someone could elucidate this comment for those of us who are not aware of the ins and outs of charedi leadership standing. Now that Rav Elyashiv is very ill, who is there that is accepted as a godol? Are there any gedolim who are not over 90 and ,if so, who?
    In this decade there are many issues that cry out for leadership, who are the leaders?

  2. Dr. E says:

    At the heart of the expectations that people have of Torah figures is the confusion of various titles which have come to be used interchangeably by people. In previous generations, these were intuited and the roles were distinct. Consequently, the expectations were different.

    Let’s take a few: Posek, Rav, Rosh Yeshiva, Ilui/Gaon, Tzaddik. These are not the same (although there might be some overlap) and that’s OK. We should not expect more than that. Just because someone has tremendous bekius, that does not make him a Posek, in either practical Halacha or Hashkafa. The same with a chaarismatic orator who might do some traveling. But through the inflated construct of Daas Torah (with help from the Internet and anecdotes/photos in the Chareidi print media), these titles and roles somehow all morph into one. Combine that with collective deficits in personal autonomy and often sechel combined with our friends the Askanim, these figures are made to be larger than life. While their intellect may be infinite in our eyes (and we should revere them for that), the scope of their expertise should be limited to time, place, context, and expertise area. Their worldview and connectedness with the big picture are limited—and that’s OK. As such, a Mashgiach or Rosh Hayeshiva in a single Yeshiva is just that. He plays that role in that Yeshiva, in that city or community, for that time period. Nothing more, but that should not deter from his greatness and the respect that we must have for him. He does not suddenly morph into the “Posek Hador” or “Posek Acharon”, terms which have largely been contrived in the past decade. While there might be an intellectual legacy through his writings, this and certainly out-of-context soundbites are by no means practically definitive for everyone.

    Using this taxonomy, the label Gadol is probably the one most often thrown around, perhaps even unwittingly by the author in the title of this post. The term Gadol throughout modern history was not something that was officially bestowed on a person. Nor did he suddenly become a Gadol through appointment to any council. What really was most often the case was that the term Gadol was an accolade that was ascribed retrospectively, often after the person passed away. The title was a historical testament to the impact that the person had in his lifetime and often beyond. He might have been a great Posek, Illui, Tzaddik, or Rosh Yeshiva or perhaps a combination. But what ultimately made him a real-deal Gadol (Hador) was his broad insight, knowledge of his limitations, and his character. The fact that the Orthodox world today is intercontinental , diverse, and multifaceted—with contemporary issues beingnuanced and complex, makes it quite difficult for any mortal to ascend to that lofty title.

    This analysis does not contradict the concept of Emunas Chachamim. That has always been a key part of our Mesorah. But, practically speaking, Emunas Chachamim should play out primarily at a more local level–as opposed to the more universally “flashy” construct of Daas Torah which is somehow binding on all from afar (ironically with an assist from the Internet that will be the target of derision at CitiField).

  3. Tzei U'lmad says:

    Yasher Koach on showing the video on Crosscurrents. It resonates because many believe that the Gedolim are hyperfocused on “purity” and the very “elitist” agenda of some chareidim in EY. Here Rav Shteinman is puncturing an “elitist” agenda and championing an openness that puts a lie to thoughts that he is ensconced in a cloister an is indifferent to the needs of a broader klal Yisroel. I found it very moving to watch a 100 year old man speak with such force and clarity on such charged “prejudicial” issues. But we have to keep in mind that Rav Shteinman has always been the lightening rod for such issues among the Gedolim, he was the one who took a stand on Tochnit Tal and Nachal Chareidi – some say to the detriment of his standing as a Gadol with many chareidim in EY. We need him ad mea esrim shana.

  4. Orit says:

    What is this business of not accepting kids into school because they are not the right type? The kids applied there and the parents agree to folow the school rules. That’s enough. I went to school with kids whose mothers didn’t keep Shabbes, didn’t cover their hair, etc. My mother never said those kids can’t come because they will ruin me. Now those same kids grew up and frummed out, and they don’t want my kids in school with their kids (and I’m yeshivish, not MO!). If my parents had acted like such resha’im, these people would not be frum today! But they think there’s a concept in Torah of being holier than thou and refusing to associate with any Jews they deem inferior. There’s something disturbed about this.

  5. lacosta says:

    [YA Many charedim are far more sophisticated (or cynical) about these matters than you give credit for.]

    –a fascinating point , with no data to back it up. ie how many is ‘many’ ? yechidim ? large sectors? the impression is that all the minions devotedly [cynics would say blindly] follow ‘moronan vRabonan’ [as Yated titles them] following with no yemin usmol… but if that were totally true , why the condemnation of the blogosphere by the Gdolim— is it fear of losing control of information as others have said?

    [YA You said it, not me.]

  6. Arnie Lustiger says:

    This post reminds me of a (perhaps apocryphal) story I heard about Rav Soloveitchik. A prominent Orthodox Shul in the Midwest was looking for a new Rabbi to replace one who was about to retire. The Rabbinic search committee received many resumes from YU, all citing the Rav’s name as a reference. The search committee therefore decided to take a trip to Boston to meet with the Rav and discuss each candidate in detail. Before he would go give his opinion of the various candidates, the Rav first asked them what they were looking for in a Rabbi. They recited a long list of required attributes: he had to be a great lamdan, an excellent speaker, a social worker who could relate to older and younger people, a marriage counselor…
    The Rav replied: “You know, my grandfather Reb Chaim was such a man!”

  7. Zave Rudman says:

    Appropo the many details of trying to govern see the Gemarra in Shabos 11a:

    שבת דף יא/א
    ואמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב אם יהיו כל הימים דיו ואגמים קולמוסים ושמים יריעות וכל בני אדם לבלרין אין מספיקים לכתוב חללה של רשות מאי קראה אמר רב משרשיא שמים לרום וארץ לעומק ולב מלכים אין חקר
    Again he said: If all the seas were ink, if all the swamps were producing pens, if the whole expanse of the horizon were parchment, and all the men were scribes, the (thoughts that fill the) void of a ruler’s heart could not be written in full. Whence is this deduced? Said R. Mesharsia: “The heavens as to height and the earth as to depth, and the hearts of kings cannot be fathomed” [Prov. xxv. 3].
    (from sacred-texts.com- too lazy to do my own translation)

    And Rashi there:
    חללה של רשות – עומק לבם, שהוא צריך להיות לו לב לכמה מדינות, למס הקצוב ולכמה מלחמות ולכמה משפטים, והכל ביום אחד:
    the depth of their heart that he needs to be the ‘heart’ of a nimber of countries, the taxes, and battles, and judgements, and all in one day.

    I think Chazal (whom I trust) say that HaShem gives a special Siyata Dishmaya to a king to be able to perform his duties, so therefore following RYA’s comparison to Gedolei Yisroel le’Havdil………

  8. Shlomo Katzen says:

    Firstly, the Torah world should be profoundly grateful for the pioneers at Cross Currents
    for providing a pioneering medium of rational and constructive debate.
    As regards Rabbi Alderstein’s articulate piece “What the Presidency Can Tell Us About Gedolei Yisroel,” I strongly agree with most of his sentiments.
    However, as regards, “we ought to be able to cut our gedolim a bit more slack than some of us do,” I humbly see it somewhat differently.

    Without question as relates to critical discourse concerning ‘Gedolei Yisroel’ it should be sans any
    ad hominem attack, and naturally without any malice. Constructive and thoughtful perspectives and ideas on how to address issues at hand.

    I believe on the reasons this video has been so spoken about in frum world is because many lonely men and women of faith desperately seek visible, relevant and outspoken leadership in frum world on a number of profound issues of our time – let alone the issue addressed in the video – very important but not the most profound.

    While we are a community that B”H thrives with all our Torah and institutional growth, we face profound challenges and ills that grow every day.

    Ills that too often, because they did not fit the narrative some leaders wish to hear – are unaddressed or worst, denied.

    Today, we live in a world of powerful communicative tools that impact and influence, and also can grossly distort, alienate and generalize – a world where consequentially ever more – dire leadership is needed both in a proactive and reactive sense. Leadership to not only offer guidance but to better facilitate healthy internal debate and nurture corrective action where necessary.

    Every day we read of ‘frum Jews’ being arrested or accused of crimes. Yes, very often these are driven by at best sensationalist headlines or at worst some underlying anti-Semitic undertones. But nevertheless, in too many of these stories – facts later bear out woeful criminal activity

    The costs are all too well known. From a lack of an unambiguous, outspoken and aggressive standing on child sexual abuse to silence on Wall Street and individual unethical business practices and personal tax evasion. This voidance of leadership results in a failure of internal discussion, of developing creative solutions and horrendous Chilul Hashem.

    I feel strongly we need to internally debate and clarify the true meaning of Chilul Hashem. When so-called “frum Jews” are convicted of such crimes there is a need for the community to publically speak out about these ills. Their actions are a Chilul Hashem – not our admonishment of their actions. This not least to make clear to the non-Jewish world that Torah forbids such type criminal actions. To make clear to Torah Jewry that enough is enough.

    Just as – rightly so – many point to the lack of outspoken Muslim leadership in denouncing some of their community ills – so in our frum world there is too often a lack of clear and concise action.

  9. Michael says:

    I think a big part of the problem is a dangerous combination of the hagiographication and Rebbezation of leading Torah scholars. Jewish literature, especially “Chareidi” literature, has essentially made the conscious decision to almost deify these Scholars, past and present. This is clearly evidenced by the maltreatment of any author, who is considered to be with the “orbit”, who breaks from the golden rule. In addition to that, there is the slow seep of Chassidification into Litvish Judaism. So, not only are any traits of normalcy being purged from the written record, but these Torah scholars are also being turned into “Grand Rebbes” with all that implies. No human can possibly live up to this.

    If all that’s not enough, the internet, many blogs specifically, make a concerted effort to normalize these individuals by highlighting their flaws. And even though there is some cross-pollination going on between the Litvish and Chassidic worlds, Litvish Chareidim are just not Chassidim. They are too heterogeneous and independent to truly view their Gedolim as Chassidim view Grand Rebbes.

    This system needs to change if any slack is to be cut.

    [YA IMHO, the last line is a non sequitur. Abberrations in our attitudes towards gedolim have crept in. Our being understanding towards the people involved – especially because of the kavod owed legitimately to great talmidei chachamim – can and should be expected regardless of our success in addressing the problems.]

  10. Eli J says:

    I don’t think the issue is necessrily an issue of unrealistic expectations in the sense.the we expect greater performance on their part. The real problem is that this kind of a video comes as a surprise and a breath of fresh air. Isn’t it obvious to any thinking mentclach Jew that the elitist style of the chadarim is problematic? Of course. But we wouldn’t expect a gadol to take a mentchlach position, we expect him to take the position of the baalei gaava that create such an exclusive system? And we’re surprised and amazed when he doesn’t? That sounds like the real problem in our expectations. I think the problem doesn’t lie with the gedolim themselves, but with the access, or lack thereof, that the public has to what they really believe. Case in point – when I joined the IDF, there was both a chassidishe guy and litvishe guythat joined with me who needed to get their first kids into cheder. The chassidishe guy of course had no trouble at all. The rebbe had given him his bracha and by the chassidim that’s law. My litvishe friend, despite having received the brachos of Rav Kaniyevsky and Rav Shteinman, had a very difficult time. The cheder claimed that they had spoken to Rav Shteiman too and he said not to accept. B”h after much wheeling and dealing and pleading he was accepted, but as my friend said, when the gedolim recommend a chumra everyone jumps,but when he says that the IDF is ok chas veshalom or tells you to accept someone to your cheider they say he an old man and doesn’t understand all the facts. Regarding infallibility, Rav Hirsch’s commentary on the beggining of Toldos on the pasuk “vayigdilu hanearim” is very very pertinent.

  11. YEA says:

    Perhaps part of what separates subscribers to a more extreme Charedi take on Da’as Torah from those who accept a more moderate view of it and those who reject it completely, is that the first category of people would say that whatever Rav Shteinman says must be the correct and divinely inspired response, even if he had said the exact opposite of what he said in this clip. Whereas the people in the latter two groups only like this video because what Rav Shteinman said here makes sense to them. Rabbi Adlerstein and Rabbi Zev Leff, for example, did not feel a need to declare that Rabbi Slifkin’s views were completely unacceptable when the Charedi Gedolim signed a letter to that effect. The rest of the Chardei world felt that Da’as Torah had spoken and that was that. Na’aseh V’nishma. The despicable Kupat Hair pamphlets are just a natural outcome of this point of view.
    (I myself have a na’aseh v’nishma attitude to Rabbi Adlerstein’s Da’as Torah — I first hit the “recommend” button and then read the post).

    Rabbi Rakeffet has relayed countless times how Rav Soloveitchik would always insist that his talmidim not accept what he says unless it makes sense to them. This is an attitude that many in the Charedi world would likely regard as near heretical. (Assuming the nonacceptance is of something said by one of the Charedi Gedolim, of course).

  12. Shades of Gray says:

    “Where would the essay of Rav A. Lichtenstein be found?”

    There is a translation available on Rabbi Slikfin’s zootorah site.

    “These duties alone could take up every waking minute”

    Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz discussed this following the Lipa issue(“Lipa” – Where Do We Go From Here?, 2/29/08):

    “Over the past 11 years, I have had the great zechus to seek the guidance, and even work with, many of our leading gedolim, and on many occasions, I was fortunate to see the far-reaching wisdom of their eitzos even if I did not fully understand them at the time they were shared with me.

    These individuals live simply and shun luxury. Many are far beyond the age of retirement, and no one could fault them if they chose to retire from a frenetic, public life and spend time with their children and grandchildren. Yet they graciously accept the incredible burden of communal responsibility with sincerity and dignity. We see them night after night participating at multiple weddings and other simchos, fundraising for the mosdos, and being available to listen to the sufferings of people who seek their bracha. We are burning them out, as my chaver Shiya Markowitz wrote in an excellent column that appeared in The Jewish Observer over fifteen years ago…”

  13. lacosta says:

    i wonder though if the klal [at least the haredi klal] grants instant expertise in all walks of life to the gdolim, where maybe they don’t neccesarily know all the facts on the ground, or the ins-and-outs of a given industry. r’ moshe had r tendler’s ear on issues of science , and one assumes without that expertise, he wouldnt have issued many complicated tshuvos. why do we assume that a gadol knows the ins-and-outs- of how to run a yeshiva ktana? let’s say it would have been a money issue, we know eg that rav steinman shlitta at the time of this video did not know what a credit card is. would that make any difference in psak in related to financial issues?

    i know we are taught that the current day gdolim are like the urim v’tumim, yet even there Eli Hakohen read the letters in the wrong order….

    i think also this is primarily an intra-haredi issue in the following sense. since MO are not holding from Daas Tora in the sense it’s used in teh last era , nor do they venerate their leaders to the level the haredim do, maybe they have less expectations [ that may be a wrong attitude , but it is what it is]
    and maybe the criticism of the haredi gdolim is coming from communities to their left, not within teh haredi sphere.maybe haredim who DO ascribe to their leaders these superhuman powers ALSO see the results as Word of G-d —naaseh vnishmah….

    [YA Many charedim are far more sophisticated (or cynical) about these matters than you give credit for.]

  14. Zave Rudman says:

    BTW the people in the video are a) extremely close with Rav Aaron Leib. b) purposely pushing the point knowing the video is there so no one can claim the opposite of what happened. They wanted the result that happened that the children be accepted to be public and clear, and therefore were waiting for him to “blow up”. This was not chutzpah at all, but an attempt to make the record perfectly clear.

    [YA – BH you clarified that. My first response was that the two interlocutors were buffoons. It took too many hours before I realized that they knew exactly what they were doing, and recorded the response in order to give them the ammo they needed. At least at that point, albeit a bit late, I was dan them lecaf zechus.]

  15. Dovid says:

    Perhaps the point needs to be stated more bluntly. The problem is with the perception that vast Torah knowledge makes a scholar nearly all-knowing and nearly infallible, the literal “Sod Hashem el yerei’av” concept whereby someone who knows lots of Torah has ru’ach hakodesh-type insight into everything. It is precisely for this reason that we don’t give the gedolim the resources they need to make educated, calculated, sound public policy decisions.

    [YA It has been pointed out several times before on this blog that the position you describe here is far from universally subscribed to even in the charedi world. You have a point about the enlargement (and therefore perversion) of the Daas Torah concept in the minds of some people, but the picture is not as bleak as you paint it.]

  16. cvmay says:

    RYA: Where would the essay of Rav A. Lichtenstein be found?

    Those who demand infallible are the same who have stopped using brain cells years ago.

    [YA If I would have remembered, I would have mentioned where. I got my copy by email.]

  17. Natan Slifkin says:

    (Or, to put it another way: It’s not that we expect them to be amazing, infallible leaders. It’s that we expect them to recognize their limitations = precisely the limitations that you mention.)

  18. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, you say that the problem is that “we still believe that they should be able to serve up insight and leadership that comes from entire offices at governmental agencies and corporate headquarters.” Actually, what many believe is that since the Gedolim do not have such efficient staff, they should refrain from paskening on issues and people where they don’t have first-hand knowledge, or when they have only heard one side of things (usually a kana’i), or when they are relying on the signatures of others. Is that too much to expect? I always thought that it was basic halachah for dayannim – you can’t pasken without hearing both sides.

  19. E. Fink says:

    Just FYI: The video is five years old.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Jews have been living all over the world for years. In the past centuries of our exile, it would have been impossible to escalate all halachic and hashkafic questions to the highest level without a procedure to climb the ladder rung by rung, only as far as needed. Now, with modern communications, we have allowed or caused rapid escalation to get out of hand, leading to the results depicted in this article.

    We have many poskim at the lower and intermediate levels who are more than competent to make the needed rulings or give the needed guidelines without sending too much to the very top of the ladder. A modern-day Yisro would immediately grasp the need for using these levels wisely and for reinforcing the authority of these poskim.

    We also ought to ask who is really served by the current situation this article decries. Klal Yisrael is not well served, nor are the Gedolim. It only serves the interests of those who find it easier to manipulate a small number of people rather than a larger number.

  21. shmuel says:

    One aspect of the video that I found interesting is that I thought the people asking R. Shteinman shlit”a weren’t very respectful (laughing at his responses and continuing to push him after he had answered their question, as though he didn’t understand). Can R. Adlerstein (or anyone else more familiar with that world than I am) explain if this is considered a proper way to interact with someone who is considered a “Gadol?”

    I can certainly say that I wouldn’t act that way toward the Rav of my shul in New Jersey (my point being that my Rav isn’t world-famous) , and I would have thought that a Rav of such a stature as R. Shteinman would deserve at least as much respect.

  22. Tal Benschar says:

    But we ought to be able to cut our gedolim a bit more slack than some of us do.

    Things have always been thus. If you read through the Torah where things go bad, klal yisroel again and again complains with pointed criticism about Moshe Rabbenu’s leadership. The Midrashim even amplify this with more examples of cynical complaints and criticism.

    R. Chaim Brisker once commented on why the Torah and the Midrashim go through so much detail about this biting criticism. Just to tell lashon horah about klal yisroel? The reason, rather, is to teach leaders of the Jewish people how much patience they have to have when dealing with the klal. Look at what Moshe had to put up with, and he still was a loving leader who always spoke up for the Jewish people, even when God Himself was prepared to execute harsh, even severe, judgment.

  23. Mark Z says:

    While I am a cynic and critical of gedolim at times, I think the problem with all of us is gaivah/ego. Why is it that when gedolim disagree with US (how dare they!) we assume they are out of touch, mistaken, taken advantage of/pressured by askanim, etc??????? Could it not be that MAYBE they are gedolim because they have a real handle on things – that MAYBE we don’t?

  24. eli says:

    On the other hand, in some ways we expect to little. we treat them like celebrities who are above the mundane but also above regular every day good things. case in point, when i help an old woman cross the street or carry groceries, or i get a little boy his ball back when it rolls into the street, its not grounds for any sort memorable story. when a “godol” does something of that nature, its a conversation starter in the yeshivahs world. Shouldn’t we expect exceptional middos from someone we consider one of our gedolim?

  25. L. Oberstein says:

    Fantastic video of Rav Shteinman. It clarly shows that they didn’t want to listen to him, that they tried every way they could to twist him into agreeing that because the second wife waw not exaqctly their type, she was “patuach” more “open”, then her children could not go to the same school that her second husband’s children already attend. Rab Shteinman said what he said but I don’t think the kids got into the school. If you check it out, I bet the school found some excuse not to let them in anyway.

  26. DF says:

    Your analogy neatly underscores the problem of the Gedolim concept. The U.S. President is elected. Everyone agrees on who he is. There is only one. His term is limited. He is given limited powers (despite occasional disagreement over what those powers are, which are interpreted by an equally well- defined body.) And his office is enshrined in the Constitution.

    Compare that with Gedolim. They are not elected. There is no agreement on who or what a Godol is. There can be many, often in conflict with one another. There are no term limits. Their powers, by those that accept the Gedolim concept, are unlimited. And our own “Constituion”, as it were, makes no mention of Gedolim.

    [YA I think this is only partially true. Gedolim are not formally “elected,” but they are culled by consensus. Each sub-community becomes aware of the talmidei chachamim within its universe, and recognition is gradually established for those who rise to the top of Torah impressiveness. I agree that there are artificial ways of doing this, like the American Moetzes, which by formula is required to balance yeshivish and chassidish leaders. Not everyone in that group is a luminary – although some are. Of course, it is only people who have considerable experience in learning who are in a position to discern who is at the top of the ladder. Different groups have the right to reject the leadership, perhaps, of great talmidei chachamim. There are additional qualities that a manhig must have. But the group of gedolim per se is not so difficult to identify. DL roshei yeshiva in Israel may very well reject the leadership of R Chaim Kanievski, but it is difficult for me to imagine that anyone would argue that he does not tower over most other talmidei chachamim. At the other end of the spectrum are a great many fine, competent rabbanim – but no one ought to imagine them gedolim.]

  27. Dan Daoust says:

    If “we ask the impossible of our gedolim,” it’s only because we are taught since birth that gedolim can do the impossible.

  28. Bob Miller says:

    What all our Gedolim deserve at a minimum is not to have an “anti-support system”, that is, a system that doctors and distorts communications to and from the Gedolim, or that pressures Gedolim to endorse specific pet solutions to communal problems.

  29. YM says:

    I wonder if the school admitted the woman’s two children?

  30. Shanks says:

    I know there’s a very strict comment censorship policy for this blog, which is even more enforced when the gedolim are brought up. But I hope since Rabbi Adlerstein brought this topic up, a different take than that in the post can be provided.

    Here’s what I think the most critical people are expecting of the gedolim:

    1-Make sure that when you hear a case against somebody or his works (e.g. the Slifkin Affair, most famously), hear the different sides of the issue.

    2-Speak out against injustice in the community.

    3-Do what you can to make sure people don’t feel ostracized for asking questions, being creative, and perhaps having different perspectives.

    I don’t think those are unfair expectations.

  31. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Point taken. I would only add that the word “gedolim” sometimes takes on a political/hashkachic meaning that is counterproductive to the very important distinction that you mention, and that combatting that meaning (such as by including luminaries such as Rav Lichtenstein when great Torah personalities are mentioned) would help to bring out the true distinction that the phrase “gadol b’Torah” should indicate.

    If I may, I would like to add one other point that I consider important. I believe that the problem of unrealistic expectations is a larger problem for baa’lai tshuva than for those raised in the yeshiva world, simply because the latter may be fortunate enough to actually meet such people, and therefore see both their greatness and their human qualities, whereas the former will generally form their impressions from the sources that tend to exaggerate the greatness and ignore the humanity – a situation that can lead to a great deal of disillusionment.

    [YA – I’ll meet you, and raise you one. Not only should R Aharon Lichtenstein be given his due recognition, but his essay a few months ago on just who is a gadol whose opinion should become public policy should be read by all those concerned. I checked on the reactions of some friends firmly positioned in the haredi yeshiva world, and they supported it enthusiastically. Their identities, of course, will have to remain hidden.]

  32. Harry Zeitlin says:

    By their very nature, there are very few true gedolim. The video of Rav Shteinman so clearly allows us to see and hear what the standard really is. Torat Chayim–his humanity shines.

  33. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I think you’re right that people expect much too much from the great Torah scholars of our day, but I think there is a clear reason for this, and that reason is what needs to be addressed. The reason is that the greatness of these people is constantly being emphasized, and over-emphasized, by rabbis, most of the haredi media, and the Artscroll and Artscroll-style series of biographies. Even more importantly – and this may be more of an Israeli than an American issue – the stature of the great Torah scholars has been used extensively – I would say taken advantage of – for political purposes, to a very great degree. Even on a local level. Case and point – in the most recent local Beit Shemesh elections, a haredi party (Tov) challenged the more establishment-oriented parties, whichv brought Rav Steineman into town in their efforts to prove that they were the “real” Torah party. This is what gives rise to the elevated expections of the leading Torah scholars, and this is also much of what gives rise to much of the negative feeling that many people have for these scholars – I believe this is an example of the avacat loshan hora of over-praising somebody, because there is a part of human nature that is tempted to respond by belittling the person that has been over-praised. To summarize, its true that the expectations are greatly inflated, but the Torah world itself has caused this inflation, and the cure is to stop claiming an exagerated greatness bordering on infallibility for the great Torah scholars. Even the very term “gedolim” contributes to this, which is one of the reasons I try to avoid using it.

    [YA – I agree with all but the last point. We should be careful not to let go of the distinction between good, competent people and major accomplishment in limud Torah, and the benefits that the latter bestows upon people.]